The Ice Planet

December 24, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 270: Owned By The Lady At Waitrose

In our 270rd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: going forward, can’t we just agree to disagree?

Ho ho ho dear. It’s our CHRISTMAS SPECIAL! Is it our Hanukkah special? Is Hanukkah special?

It does sound like we’re about to talk about politics again, but don’t worry, we divert. Instead we ponder why no one visits Prince Philly in hospital, the worstest of all Christmas songs, and complain about Poundland’s tills.

We then talk about forgiveness, which is uncharacteristically apposite for the season, then try to come up with some new Christmas traditions.

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by John Walker at December 24, 2019 04:18 PM

December 06, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 269: Nasal Douche

In our 269nd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: should we amend the Great British constitution so that Andrew Neil be Queen during general election?

John has a CHRONIC SINUS CONDITION, and that’s obviously the big news of the week. So we talk nasal DOUCHING. He’s also just launched a new website about undiscovered indie games, but pah.

We also talk the awfulness of the election choices, as evidenced by the inevitable success of Mogg, about Judith’s appendectomy, steamed breakfasts, and the disastrous US healthcare system.

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by John Walker at December 06, 2019 12:25 PM

November 15, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 268: Quite Oddly Lax

In our 268rd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: should we be worried about TikTok?

Nick has a new kitten! It’s correct name is Maisy. This sadly doesn’t distract us from talking about the hopeless pit that is the UK general election. And then, with a great deal of sense and decorum, we discuss the ethnic demographics of the UK for the longest time.

Then, stepping into a subject about we’re even less expert, we talk evolution.

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by John Walker at November 15, 2019 06:56 PM

October 24, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 267: Munchy Vagina

In our 267nd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: With all the worrying news, shouldn’t there now be a vaping tsar?

There’s a little bit of politics. We begin with all the latest HILARIOUS ANTICS of Brexit, and then quite figuratively leap across the Atlantic at the depressing farce of the Democratic race. With special focus on the brain collapse of Joe Biden.

We learn the advice of children, and then get to the real issue of the day: Nick’s fancy new toilet.

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by John Walker at October 24, 2019 08:46 AM

September 25, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 266: Operating Within Chronological Time

In our 266nd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: Why don’t we kick the CAN’T down the road?!

Prepare yourself: it’s going to be Brexitty. Obviously we discuss at some length the excitement of the last day or so, plus our predictions for what’s going to happen next. And we try to understand the motivations for people who voted Leave, but aren’t racists or stupid.

We ponder how Rees-Mogg has been so rhetorically thick, and even more concerningly, how Farage is becoming so rhetorically smart. Then Nick is MASSIVELY racist against the Japanese, while John saves his racism for the Jews. Finally we celebrate how terrible BBC News has become, and, moving forward, condemn anyone who ever says that.

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by John Walker at September 25, 2019 09:47 AM

September 11, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 265: Punch Cars Out The Sky

In our 265rd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: Why don’t we just… prorogue traffic wardens?!?!!

So yes, we obviously discuss the Brexitty madness, and then the legacy of John Bercow. This then incomprehensibly links on to the irritations of “smart” speakers, Toby’s first day at school, and that dreadful modern music you kids listen to.

We argue about giving trophies to children, argue even more about whether John likes tennis, and argue a bit in the middle about whether to have fights.

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by John Walker at September 11, 2019 10:15 AM

September 03, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 264: #nolivesmatter

In our 264nd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we put a man on the moon?

This week we talk instead about the absolute clustermuck that is this week in politics, and how no rules apply anywhere. We ask why phones don’t dut-duhdah-dut any more, the power of adverts, and we argue for the extinction of the human race.

Plus there’s the most important topic of all: what’s going on with toilet buttons?

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by John Walker at September 03, 2019 10:36 AM

August 09, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 263: 10rd Anniversary Special!

In our 263nd ever Rum Doings, our topic is: Should Nick be deported to Robin Island for stealing Starglider?

It’s our tenth anniversary! The very first episode came out on the 10nd August 2009, and today is near as dammit. If you want to be a purist, don’t listen to this until tomorrow.

We obviously discuss the changes that have occurred over the last ten years, both to us and the world, which naturally leads us to our usual complaining about Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, and Brexit. For some reason Nick insists on John’s blithering about changes in games, we do our best to upset most new parents, and Judith outdoes John on appearing on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show.

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by John Walker at August 09, 2019 11:55 AM

August 07, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 262: We Should Probably Stop

In our 262st ever Rum Doings, our topic is either: “With the latest set of atrocities, can we finally ban these video nasties?” or indeed: “With all these floods, shouldn’t we just get rid of dams and use bottles instead?”

Instead we discuss weeing, because look, we’re in our 40s now. And indeed erections. That out the way, I’m afraid we turn to slightly more distasteful topics, and analyse the calculated awfulness of our new PM. Nick then goes on to be wrong about The Orville, while John, by contrast is right. And then everything breaks and we give up.

To get this episode directly, right click and save here. To subscribe to Rum Doings click here, or you can find it in iTunes here.

by John Walker at August 07, 2019 01:28 PM

July 11, 2019

The Thoughts of a Mind

Rum Doings Episode 261: The Common Decency To Look Bloody Evil

In our 261rd ever Rum Doings, our topic is, “Those pedalling the slur that Labour is ‘institutionally racist’ should remember When the fascists march into your town, it will be Labour supporters who turn up to drive them out.”

In this week’s episode of our weekly podcast we talk about John’s long ago trip to Canada, about Nick’s hatred of all that is good and pure, and go into some detail about the peculiar near-death experiences of John’s cat, Lucy. Oh, and are all children sociopaths? Plus other stuff, as you might imagine.

To get this episode directly, right click and save here. To subscribe to Rum Doings click here, or you can find it in iTunes here.

Or you can listen to it right here:

by John Walker at July 11, 2019 03:25 PM

February 04, 2019

Nick Cohen

Seumas Milne and the Stasi


Few noticed in 2015 when Seumas Milne excused the tyranny that held East Germany in its power from the Soviet Invasion in 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nearly every page reeked of a sly attempt to sweeten dictatorship and cover up the murder it inevitably brings. It was greeted with deserved indifference.

As for Milne, two-years ago he was just another columnist in a newspaper industry that is stuffed with them. He provided a niche service on the Guardian by catering for a corner of the market that yearned to hear defences of 20th century Soviet Communism and 21st century Islamo-Fascism at the same time and for the same reasons. Now Milne is Jeremy Corbyn’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications. There is a faint chance he could be the most influential adviser in a Corbyn government, if Labour wins power. He won’t go back to obscurity, if Labour loses, however. Milne will fight to ensure that the modern version of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the alliance of the red and the black, continues to control the opposition.

To stay on the Stalin side of the alliance, two years ago the publishers of Stasi State or Socialist Paradise asked Milne to provide a foreword. He was pleased to oblige. The book was ‘sober and balanced,’ he enthused. The authors, John Green and Bruni de la Motte, showed ‘great merit’.

Regrettably, East Germany was home to the Stasi, but was that really so bad? The authors Milne cheered for made a few concessions. They accepted the Stasi arrested Germans for activities ‘that were legal in the West’. Their throats cleared, they then spluttered out excuses for the surveillance state. East Germany’s punishments for dissent were ‘mild,’ they claimed. It flouted democratic norms but that is ‘in the nature of all security services’. Indeed not only was the Stasi just like ‘all security services’ it was better than other security services. For the authors assured us, the ‘Stasi was not a corrupt force in the sense that the British police were recently shown to be’.

Milne agreed. Communist East Germany had been demonised by Angela Merkel’s reunited Germany, he said. It had made denouncing the Stasi state a ‘loyalty test for modern Germans’. Milne saw through the charade. Merkel and other defenders of the West want us to forget that the communists delivered ‘social and women’s equality well ahead of its times, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany’.

The fight against propaganda requires a tireless defence of the historical record. Propagandists like Milne prosper because they know that most cannot be bothered to track down every omission and nail every half-truth. Tiring and tiresome though it may be, let us insist that East Germany did not allow ‘greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy today’. It banned free trade unions. It so controlled workers, that they revolted. As Milne must know, the East Berlin workers’ uprising of 1953 against the Soviet-backed state inspired the only lines of Bertolt Brecht to have passed into modern culture:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

As for the Stasi and its ‘mild’ punishments, there are dozens of genuine histories in English as well as German, all of which raise the same possibility: East Germans could have been the most spied on and snitched on people on earth. The German communists did not kill as many as the German fascists. But John O. Koehler in his history of the Stasi nevertheless makes a revealing comparison. The Gestapo had 40,000 officers spying on a united Nazi Germany of 80 million people: one state-employed spy for 2,000 people. The Stasi had 102,000 controlling a population of 17 million: one state-employed spy for every 166 East Germans. Add in the informers the state recruited – friends, workmates, neighbours and even children – and East Germany had one spy for every 66 citizens.

Their punishments were not ‘mild’. Millions escaped to the West before the communists built a wall to imprison their own people. (What kind of ‘ahead-of-its-time’ country does that, Milne could have profitably asked.) Once the wall was up, 825 Germans were killed trying to escape, and post-communist investigators have documented 4,444 actual and attempted killings of opponents by the East German state and 40,000 sentences for political offences.

I have my criticisms of Britain’s police and Germany’s protection of workers’ rights. But to say that the Stasi was less corrupt and that workplace protections in East Germany were superior is to engage in propaganda which is either filthy or ignorant or both.

You have to be in your 40s to remember the Soviet Union. The young voters who say they will back Corbyn this week do not know or care about the battles of the last century. Why should they dive into the past and understand what it means to defend communist terror? But Corbyn and the post-communists around him clearly do care. Milne rushed to praise a worthless apologia because Soviet communism matters to the Labour leadership. Milne is explicit. He says it is ‘crucial’ that the Labour party he and his friends lead and other social movements learn ‘the lessons of both the successes and failures’ of the Stasi state.

I don’t believe that Milne will be in Downing Street on Friday, but who knows? If the far left continues to control the opposition, however, Brecht’s question after the 1953 workers’ uprising should be asked again, but this time without the sarcasm: Would it not be easier to dissolve the Labour party and elect another one?

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 06:33 PM

The cult of St Jeremy

Observer, October, 2017

The few people not caught up in leader worship in Brighton asked how the cult of Jeremy Corbyn’s personality would die. Would his support for Brexit drive his young admirers away? Have we reached peak Corbyn? They forgot the lesson of history that you don’t worry about personality cults that fail. You worry when they succeed.

Cultism was everywhere at the Labour conference. It was in the Corbyn memorabilia on sale at conference stalls. It was in the chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” that greeted his every appearance. It was in the delegates’ desire to extend the sycophancy to Corbyn’s lieutenants, which died when the crowd realised “Oh, Rebecca Long-Bailey” didn’t quite work. Most, and most ignobly, it was in the demeaning attempts by leftwing politicians and journalists to atone for the heresy of doubting Corbyn’s ability to increase Labour’s vote share and worm their way back into his affections.

Tom Watson, Labour’s anti-Coriolanus, tried to save his position by telling the twee story of how he was standing in a field at Glastonbury, when the festival-goers, with that striking originality that so marks the Labour left, began the Corbyn chant. “And as they sang,” he simpered to the applauding crowd, “I realised it’s actually better to be loved than to be feared. And Jeremy has shown us that it’s possible. Thank you, Jeremy.”

Everyone who knows Watson knows he believes Corbyn’s programme presents a direct threat to Britain’s economic prosperity and national security. But a politician who once found the courage to fight Rupert Murdoch is now so frightened of speaking his mind he fills his mouth with flattery.

The scale of the idolatry is its most significant feature. Even the most unpopular leaders have followers who will back them unconditionally. True cults of personality are mass movements. Without the warm feeling of being part of a collective that boos and hisses together, they would fall apart.

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds,” said Charles Mackay, the Victorian author of the seminal Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. “It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

As revealing and as historically commonplace is the infantilism cults impose. The far left has succeeded by creating an overwhelming feeling that “Jeremy” – and it is always “Jeremy”, not “Corbyn” or “Mr Corbyn” – must be protected from the media and his fellow politicians. So deep does it run, Corbyn’s sidekicks banned Labour MPs from the conference floor, as if they were Glastonbury plebs without a VIP pass.

Labour members treat the leader of the opposition as a child who needs a safe space to hide him from the backstabbing and barracking all other politicians must endure. In doing so, they have turned themselves into children who cannot handle the robust debates of a free society.

As always, the insistence that hope resides in one hero brings with it the whiff of messianic religion. I winced in Brighton as the mere mention of Corbyn’s name on stage drew applause. Like worshippers punctuating a church service with “amens”, Labour members felt a religious duty to acknowledge the presence of goodness.

Corbyn gives every appearance of wallowing in the attention. But, wisely, he adopts a saintly air of modesty. After a portrait of his head crowned by a halo was paraded in the conference centre, he told Sky News he had worked hard in the election campaign but, mighty though his labours were, he did not deserve to be sanctified. “I often feel deeply embarrassed by it. It’s not my wish and it’s not my doing.” If he meant a word of this, Corbyn would ask his aides why they appeared to take the Lord’s name in vain by addressing him as “JC” in public.

The consequences of Labour’s failure to break away from a messianic leader were painfully evident in Brighton. If the conference itself might as well never have happened for all the good it did, the streets outside were filled with life. Everyone could sense that a decrepit Tory government could be forced to concede acres of ground. Unfortunately, everyone also sensed that Corbyn had no intention of applying pressure. Let us pause for a moment to consider the historical irony here. The far left says its despises “Blairite” compromise. Yet on the great issue of the day, it has so triangulated with the Tories even Tony Blair is now outflanking “Jeremy” on the left.

Before the conference began, there was a demonstration by supporters of free movement. They were not just protesting to uphold the rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe. They understood that by stopping today’s young from becoming Europeans, the government was stopping them working where they wanted, living where they wanted and loving and marrying who they wanted. By Brighton beach, they could sense a dense fog was about to fall on the Channel that would cut them off from the wider world.

On the fringe, I heard the Irish Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, talk with urgency and seriousness about the “high price in blood” Ireland and Britain had paid to remove the last hard border on the island of Ireland. The risk that Brexit would reimpose it was too great to run. In a tone that was close to an instruction, he said the British Labour party had to commit to protecting the peace by staying in the EU customs union. Labour claims to be a party of internationalists. It gratefully took the votes of Irish immigrants and their children. Under Corbyn, it says it is all for peace. But when asked to maintain the hard-won peace in Ireland, it could only waffle and censor.

Corbyn does not want to reopen the EU debate because he believes Brexit frees him to push through a programme of socialism in one country. (There won’t be restrictions of “state spending”, he said last week, as if the loss of single market membership and capital flight won’t impose restrictions aplenty.) To avoid embarrassing him, Momentum blocked a full debate on the EU. As one dismissive delegate explained, arguments about the most important challenge we face were merely a “disgraceful” attempt to undermine Jeremy.

It was all about Corbyn. It always is.

I cannot predict if he will become prime minister. But we don’t need to wait for him to come to power to understand why we must always resist personality cults. Even while it is in opposition, cultism has turned Labour into a childish, sycophantic, thuggish and unthinking party. That, surely, is bad enough.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 06:23 PM

Manufacturing fake news

Image result for robbie travers

On 12 May, Robbie Travers sent Esme Allman, a fellow student at Edinburgh University, a Facebook message.

“Hey Esme, just to let you know multiple news agencies have been delivered [sic] your comments on calling black men trash. You might want to think about saying that in future, some have been linked it [sic] to neo-Nazism.”

The ill-crafted words were at best half-truths and at worst outright lies. But there was a nugget of fact beneath them, which Travers could melt and remould. Allman had indeed said “trash”. But the context, which Travers did not mention, could not have been further from neo-Nazism. Allman was in a Facebook group for black and ethnic minority students at Edinburgh. Its members talked about the abuse Serena Williams received when she announced she had fallen in love with a white man. Black men who insulted a black woman for marrying the love of her life were “trash”, Allman declared. Harsh words, but understandable in the circumstances. Whatever their colour, trolls are trash, after all.

Travers appeared to have been monitoring Allman like a secret policeman looking for a dirty secret. And – Eureka! – he had found it. Or rather he had found an unexceptional opinion he could twist to make a black woman look like the very racists she opposes. He announced to his thousands of Facebook followers: “I will be unveiling a racist elected to the anti-racist post at Edinburgh University.”

In view of what was to happen next, it is worth noting that Travers was the prig. He was trying to punish Allman for her words and thoughts, not the other way round. Allman thought he was harassing her and reported him to Edinburgh University for allegedly breaking its code of conduct (he was eventually cleared of this charge)

So what? Student politics is so vicious because it matters so little, as the cynical wisdom has it. Two students were shouting at each other on Facebook. Who cares?

About half the news organisations in Britain was the answer. If Travers’ claim that “multiple news agencies have been delivered” twisted extracts of Allman’s conversation about Serena Williams were true, none of the media rose to the bait. But, earlier this month, Travers gave multiple news agencies a story that was much more to their liking.

The Mail, the Sun, Trump’s propaganda network Fox News, Putin’s propaganda network Russia Today, the Express, the Times, which broke the “story”, and the far-right US sites Infowars and Breitbart assured their gullible readers that Travers was the victim of the latest politically correct insanity. It wasn’t just the rightwing press. The Independent, the Mirror, and papers across Europe loved the story.

They repeated every word of Travers’ new allegation that Allman had accused him of Islamophobia for “mocking Islamic State on Facebook”. There was no mention of Serena Williams. Travers was no longer the creepy censor trying to make others suffer. He was now the victim of political correctness gone, well, mad.

Edinburgh University’s bureaucrats were going along with the witch-hunt and investigating him for making Muslim and minority students feel “unsafe”, Travers continued. But Robbie would not be intimidated. His cherubic face and flowing locks complemented the heroic image he was so keen to project.

Imagine. Even Isis can’t be criticised now. A black student and a “self-proclaimed feminist” to boot was supporting barbarism and trying to turn its critics into hate criminals. Every rightwing suspicion was confirmed with suspicious ease. In a revealing interview recorded for the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle told Travers: “If it wasn’t for insanities like this, I wouldn’t have a job, so thank you.”

Just so. And it’s not only rightwing journalists who are grateful. With headcounts hacked back and finances in free fall, many news organisations don’t have the resources to check a story. When it so neatly tells their readers what they want to hear, the seductive question arises: do we want to check at all?

Allman told me she never mentioned Isis and the transcript of her complaint bears this out. The university covered its back by saying it wouldn’t “consider bringing charges of misconduct against any student for mocking Isis”. But it left Allman in the lurch.

It told her not to talk to journalists, but refused to tell reporters what the dispute was about. Crucially, it would not confirm or deny that she had mentioned Isis. I spoke to Ronald Kerr, one of Edinburgh University’s extraordinarily large number of press officers, last week. He didn’t know the detail of what had happened and would not find out either. A student’s name has been smeared on two continents but putting the record straight was no concern of his or his university.

Allman has broken her silence now, and given an interview to Edinburgh’s student newspaper. JK Rowling performed a public service by tweeting a link. But it remains the case that for the rest of her life any employer Googling Allman’s name will see dozens of news organisations suggesting that she was a fellow traveller with Isis. They will have to search very hard to find her side of the story.

We used to say a lie can run round the world before the truth had got its boots on. Now lies are like decrepit satellites that circle the Earth for ever.

The dozens of news sites that spread the fake news about him could not have been expected to know Travers’ reputation. But any journalist making the most cursory of checks would have noticed that his website bears the vainglorious title: The Office of Robbie Travers. As well as saying he is an authority on global politics, the law and just about everything else, Travers claims to be the media manager for the Human Security Centre, an influential foreign policy thinktank. As no one else had bothered to phone, I gave it a call.

“We let him go many months ago,” a senior figure told me. “He was a complete liability. He was never the media manager. He was just junior comms staff, who ran our Twitter account very badly. He’s one of the most bizarre people I’ve ever encountered. Strange so many otherwise smart people still support him.”

Except and alas, it’s not remotely strange to anyone who looks at how partisan newspapers and new media websites work. Liddle had it right. If they started to doubt men such as Travers, they would be out of a job.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:44 PM

How I learned to leave the pub and love running

Nick Cohen, Observer columnist, running in Islington.

The Observer August 2017

Four years ago, I put on what I used to call my gym kit and went for my first run in decades. Two hundred metres in, pain shot through my ample, but I liked to think, still manly physique. It was as if a sniper had taken out my legs. Abandoning all thought of fitness, I hobbled home, wincing with every step.

One should try to grow old honestly. And for middle-aged men that includes facing up to self-delusions. For anyone brought up in the journalistic culture of the late 20th century, the greatest delusions were about health. All kinds of subconscious diversion strategies clicked in whenever it was suggested that perhaps we should think about leaving the pub occasionally and taking some exercise.

Then, and indeed now, if a middle-aged man announces he is off for a boozy lunch, he is highly unlikely to say to himself: “But I must be careful. What about my liver? What about my heart?” He is even more unlikely to hear his beery friends say the same. They, too, do not want the thought to gain currency that boozing and gluttony may be dangerous.

When you announce you are taking up running, however, your friends turn into health freaks. “No, Nick,” they cry. “Think of the dangers. For God’s sake man THINK OF YOUR KNEES!”

That my knees, and indeed my thighs and calves, had gone within minutes of striding out confirmed what they and I wanted to know. Exercise was dangerous, and it was health fascism to think otherwise. Far better and safer to stay overweight, even though in my case I was obese (weighing about 18 stone or 114kg) and the real danger to my knees came from my forcing them to dead lift 30kg of surplus blubber every time I levered myself from a chair.

Until recently, the debate about obesity paid too little attention to why people stayed unfit. It is not as if we were happy. I know the attraction of getting drunk. It has taken me half a lifetime to break my addiction to nicotine. But why did I live in a semi-paralysed condition where fast movement and vigorous labour were impossible?

It is important not to lose sight of how extraordinary the change to our bodies has been and how widespread the acceptance of debilitation has become. Britain is now the fattest country in western Europe. In 1957, fewer than one in 10 11-year-olds was fat; by 2012, more than a quarter were overweight or obese. Obesity is responsible for about one in 10 deaths in Britain. It vastly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the main cause of blindness in working-age people, and leads to more than 100 amputations a week.

One good answer to the question why do not we eat less and move more is that our idea of a normal body has shifted. As our size has ballooned, so our expectations have changed. American academics found, for instance, that their overweight compatriots no longer think of themselves as fat. When they compared themselves against the people around them, they thought their bodies looked “just fine”. The same academics found that fewer people are bothering to diet. Many no longer see the need to. Obesity, like the Trump administration, has become accepted as the new normal.

In journalism, the old hard-drinking culture generated all kinds of mental defences against losing weight. Twenty years ago you could earn yourself an air of unwarranted sophistication by quoting Tony Benn’s quip that when the “desire for physical exercise gets too strong, I lie down until it passes”. There were dozens of variations on a line I remember John Mortimer delivering: “I’ve always believed that no pleasure is worth giving up for six months in a geriatric home in Weston-super-Mare”.

Ha bloody ha. Except that when the guffawing stopped, the punchline rang false. Modern men and women are not always dying prematurely. Lifestyle diseases tend to be chronic before they are fatal. Rather than escape the geriatric home, we are condemning ourselves to a sentence of considerably more than six months of miserable infirmity.

There is a further factor in explaining why we don’t run. The British in particular are frightened of looking absurd. And before he is anything else a man of my age in shorts and a clinging top stepping out onto a public highway is utterly ridiculous. Not least because he cannot move far or fast once he is on the road.

This point is too rarely made. The food industry is using its ferocious lobbying power to try to limit restrictions on sugar. In all the propaganda that drops in my inbox, its PRs say that weight loss is as much about exercise as cutting down on the sugar-laden foods they dispense. So it is. But if you are obese, as I was, you cannot take strenuous exercise. You cannot walk five miles without feeling it for days afterwards, let alone run five miles. You have to change your diet before you can do anything else.

Finally, and there is no way of avoiding it, there is a repellently religious aspect to proselytising for exercise. Like repentant sinners at an evangelical meeting, we describe with lubricous relish how low we sunk before we were reborn. We pigged out. We boozed up, but we saw the light and expect our newfound virtue to be applauded. (I’m 13 stone now. Praise the Lord, and more to the point, Praise Me.) Purity of body may have replaced purity of soul but the self-satisfied piety has not changed.

I would not write now about the pleasure I have found in running were it not for two factors. First the National Health Service cannot cope with the sicknesses of obesity on top of the chronic illnesses of ageing. I am speaking with no authority beyond anecdotal experience, but it strikes me that public health authorities need to think about the psychological as much as the physical causes of obesity.

They need to find ways to overcome our bias towards indolence and our willingness to delude ourselves. Second, a doctor who rather sweetly overestimated my ability to influence public debate once told me that all responsible journalists had a duty to denounce the fad diets that fill the press. They set people up for failure. Getting fit and losing weight was not one big thing but many little things. And the little thing that has given me the greatest pleasure has been running.

When I tried again this year, I learned from my previous mistakes. You do not just start running. You build up gradually. The smartphone was my saviour. You can download any number of “couch to 5k” programmes. A typical routine will have the instructor telling you to run repetitions of 60-second runs then 90-second walks in your first week. By your fourth, you will be running in five-minute bursts. By the fifth, you are managing eight-minute runs, and by the final eighth you should be able to cover three miles, 5km, as you run for a full 30 minutes. I never thought I could do it. Running for three minutes caused the shooting pains to return, but after eight weeks I managed 5km. Nearly everyone can. Again, I am well aware of the danger of sounding like an evangelical preacher or self-help booster. Of course, there are people who cannot run. The point is that everyone without a relevant disability should be able to do it.

Smartphones have a further attraction to the typically embarrassed British man or woman. You do not have to think about the absurd figure you cut exercising in public. You plug in your headphones, turn up the music and blot out the world and all its cutting glances.

Once you have covered 5km, you face a choice – just go on jogging or try to become a runner. Parkrun is there for you, if you choose the latter. It is one of those admirable organisations, which, along with Alcoholics Anonymous and Citizens Advice, represent the big society David Cameron never understood. Staffed by volunteers and entirely free, it organises runs for hundreds of thousands of people. You sign up online, go along and find you’re in a competitive race. Running is an egalitarian sport. Until you reach a high level, the only person you are competing against is yourself. Parkrun officials time every entrant’s run, and it was with great pride that I saw my 5km time fall from a sluggish 27 minutes to an almost passable 24.

Taking running further means intensive runs to increase your speed and long runs where you just go as far as you can for as long as you can. These to me are the real joy. I have reached 10 miles, and it is on these long runs without pressure or competition that I have experienced my moments of elation. They come early in the morning, when the sun is just coming out, and I find myself moving fast, and my feet are hitting the ground lightly. For someone who was fat and slow for decades I found my sense of geography changed. I am able to flit through gaps I would previously have squeezed through. My sense of space has changed too. Distances I could never think of travelling by foot are now manageable. Seven miles? I could cover that in an hour. Indeed I want to get out and run it now and feel almost bereft when a pulled muscle or work keeps me indoors.

In his beautiful memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami thinks about different types of creativity when he runs. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent find their work flows like water from a spring. Murakami and most of the rest of us don’t have a natural talent. “I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate a source of creativity,” he says. For me running is like that. It is hard and painful, a long pound. But every now and then the water springs out of the rock and I am carried along with the flow.

Murakami also warns against evangelising. You should not try to convince others to run, he insists. I have broken his rule. Not because I want to sermonise or fat shame you or shout at you like a brutal PE instructor, but because for this tired, slow, middle-aged Englishman running, however inadequately, is a liberation.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:30 PM

Anne Marie Waters and the lure of Islamophobia

Anne Marie Waters was banned by Ukip from fighting an election after describing Islam as “evil”.

It sounds like the start of a bad stand-up routine. An Irish lesbian feminist walks into Ukip’s HQ and… And the Kippers walk out. Or at least three-quarters of Ukip’s members of the European parliament say they will walk out if Anne Marie Waters becomes their new leader.

Ukip’s politicians are not threatening to resign because Waters is Irish or a lesbian or even a feminist. Despite Nigel Farage’s cloying friendship with Trump and admiration for Putin, despite Ukip’s naked use of racist scaremongering in the Brexit campaign, Ukip politicians are not objecting to Waters because she is left wing, but because she is not nearly left wing enough.

Waters has managed a feat many thought impossible – she is too reactionary for Ukip’s leaders to stomach. Like anyone who has been involved in the fights for freedom of speech and human rights, I am suspicious of the “Islamophobe” label Waters attracts. From Salman Rushdie onwards, the religious right has used it to enforce blasphemy taboos. Like others, I prefer “anti-Muslim bigot” because it describes a real phenomenon: people who hate Muslims because they are Muslim, rather than freethinkers who criticise the manmade prejudices of “sacred” texts.

Trump is an anti-Muslim bigot, as is Geert Wilders; so, in my view, is Anne Marie Waters. The 3 million or so Muslims in Britain cannot be a part of British society, she says. “There is one issue on which Ukip really should now step up to the plate – Islam and Muslim immigration,” her manifesto explains. “The party must publicly acknowledge that Islamic culture is simply not compatible with our own.”

Ukip politicians say in public that they must stop her because they do not want their party to become a sectarian gang that offers British Muslims no hope. In private, they timorously echo many of today’s artists and satirists. They tell journalists they do not want to make themselves a Charlie Hebdo-style target by taking on Islam too vocally.

Ukip’s vetting procedures may stop Waters running. The party banned her from fighting an election in London in 2015 because she had described Islam as “evil”. But if they don’t, many of the party’s old guard think that Waters and the activists she has brought in with her will take control. Ukip could soon become a “party of the street”, one told me. More suited to fistfights than electoral fights.

Too right wing for Ukip. Too extreme for the extremists. What a fanatical figure Anne Marie Waters cuts today. To my eyes in particular. I once knew and admired her as a principled Labour activist. She worked with Asian feminists in their hard and essential struggle against theocratic constraints, most notably on British Muslim women.

The pressure group I knew her from was called One Law for All. It opposed the willingness of “liberal” society to allow the spread of sharia courts that more often than not treated women as second-class citizens. As its founder and Waters’s then boss, Maryam Namazie, explained, secular campaigns against intolerance from ethnic minority religious leaders must walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they must cope with attacks from the relativist left, which thinks it wrong to stand up for women’s rights and gay rights if the women and gays in question are not being oppressed by western or capitalist forces. On the other, secularists and feminists had to take great care to stop their campaigns being exploited by racists and xenophobes.

I know from experience that all who have offered what help they can to the secular cause can become infuriated by the self-negating vacuities of the modern liberal left. It is my firm view that historians will look back on our willingness to bend the knee before self-appointed clerical leaders with amazement and more than a little contempt. But Waters was not content with fighting liberal hypocrisy. She flipped. She cut all links with her sisters and comrades and chose the worst possible course. Henceforth, she determined to fight the Islamist religious right by joining the white racist right.

The tale of the former leftist turned Ukip contender is emblematic of our times. Everywhere you see the upholders of ideas that were once ignored or dismissed extracting their vengeance on a Britain that spurned them.

It is easy to forget it, as we live through the unnecessary crisis they have brought on the country they profess to love, but Britain’s Eurosceptics once had a point. In areas of public policy as varied as agriculture and health and safety, EU directives lacked democratic legitimacy. Official Britain, by which I mean the leaders of the main parties, the civil service and the BBC, took little notice. Just as our supposedly “liberal” society ignored complaints about illiberal religious practices, so our supposedly “democratic” country ignored complaints about the undemocratic EU. Or, rather, its leaders did on the grounds that the price of regaining sovereignty was too high to pay. As we are now finding out. The Corbyn movement is starting to resemble a red version of Ukip in its indulgence of conspiracy theory and support for a hard Brexit. Farage praised Corbyn as “almost a proper chap” and Katie Hopkins has hailed him as a “good man”. If you are repelled by the spectacle of the far left and far right uniting in their opposition to the EU, do not forget that Corbyn and his supporters once had a justified grievance as well.

They had every reason to believe that official society had failed to live up to basic standards when it bailed out the bankers and made the poor and working classes pick up the bill. The left’s campaign against the hypocrisies of austerity, like the dissident feminist campaign against the hypocrisies of liberal multiculturalism and the Eurosceptic campaign against EU authoritarianism, was justified. The fringe movements had every right to be self-righteous and, as you cannot help but have noticed, they have exercised that right to the full.

But they cannot keep on claiming victim status now that they control the White House, Britain’s Brexit administration and the Labour party.

“Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner,” goes the French proverb. To understand all is to forgive all. But that cannot be true in politics. I understand how anger at liberal hypocrisy drove Anne Marie Waters to the far right. Just as I understand why Britain voted to leave and why the far left controls the Labour party. But I don’t forgive a single thing about it.

Observer May

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:23 PM

Brexit bullies turn on those sorting out their mess

Powers behind the May throne: Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy arrive for work at Downing Street.

The Observer May 2017

The racist right, it used to be said, wanted everyone to look the same, while the politically correct left wanted everyone to think the same. What unites the small and the dirty minded, however, is always more important than superficial ideological divisions. Now the worst of the right has become like the worst of the left. We must not only look like them but think like them.

“Do you stand with Britain or with the EU?” demanded the Telegraph. Remainers must either “rally behind Brexit” or be guilty of seeking “a national humiliation”. Once, you could think and argue that the decision to leave the EU betrayed the national interest. Now, your arguments and thoughts are policed. You cannot just accept the referendum result. You must endorse it, welcome it, sing its praises or fail the right’s loyalty test and be guilty of a kind of treason.

One can make too much of the totalitarian cries of “enemies of the people” and “crush the saboteurs” that fill the rightwing press. The Daily Mail has always lived in the grey zone between the right and far right. The Daily Telegraph demand to suppress heretical words was written by Tim Stanley, a Catholic commentator, who, in the frenzy of our fetid times, has replaced God worship with state worship. Grateful governments have always relied on his kind.

But do not make too little of the attempt by Conservative apologists to declare opposition illegitimate either. The authoritarianism of the Tory press reflects the wider and more dangerous authoritarianism of a Tory prime minister who is about to receive a crushing mandate from the electorate. The Brexit she is pursuing is impossible. But the frightened culture the resurgent right imposes requires civil servants to hide their doubts with forced smiles

The people who are “standing with Britain” are not the Tory press or, on the whole, Leave voters. In the civil service and business, the professions and industry, hundreds of thousands who think Brexit is folly are trying to clean up the mess the Telegraph and its allies have made. When the inevitable failure comes, we can already see the right will blame them for its own manifest incompetence.

Civil servants say only three people have the power to take decisions in Whitehall: May and her special advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. When the chancellor fails to please, they or their spin doctors plant stories telling him to get back in line. When civil servants fulfil their constitutional duty to warn of dangers, they slap them down. In his farewell letter, Sir Ivan Rogers, the departing ambassador to the EU, dispensed with the mandarin style and warned his colleagues that the May administration wanted a back-covering, tongue-biting political culture. You should “never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power”, he wrote. “I hope you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”

His hope is not being realised. May’s speeches are filled with the fantasy that we can agree the divorce terms and set up the framework for a trade agreement within two years. It took Canada seven years to negotiate a trade deal – and that did not cover service industries, which form the bulk of the British economy. May gave the impression that the future of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU could be settled in weeks. She does not want to know wrenching them out of a common framework of law is an extraction so complicated it could go wrong in a hundred different ways. She appears to think that Britain can leave the single market but still retain full access to the single market for the car, financial services and media and tech industries without complying with EU law.

As Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform delicately puts it, no civil servant appears to be free to tell the prime minister that what she wants cannot be delivered unless she backs down and accepts freedom of movement and a continuing role for the European court of justice.

Anyone who has worked for a propagandistic newspaper will sympathise. The prime minister is no more than an editor who sets the party line. The job of the journalist or civil servants is to toe it and not bother the boss with awkward details.

The Conservative party, declared the liberal historian AJP Taylor, “is an alliance of the City and the Mob”. You cannot doubt that the Mob has the upper hand now. As for financial services, it became Britain’s most important industry because it was the Europe Union’s largest financial centre. Now we have said we are leaving, more than a quarter of the 222 UK financial services firms have already announced that they are moving staff or reviewing their domicile because of Brexit.

A kinder historian of the Tories than Taylor might have called the Conservative party an alliance of a section of the managerial middle class and the patriotic working class. The working class will suffer most in the end, as it always does. Unless May compromises, foreign investors will go elsewhere and supply chains will wither. I cannot see how what’s left or the manufacturing working class will struggle through and rebuild after that.

Professionals are facing the consequences of Britain’s unforced error first. They don’t own the country nor do they govern it. They are not rich. They cannot find an escape route because they don’t make enough to shift their jobs or families offshore. Neither wealthy nor powerful, they are the people who make sure the country just about works. They have had a crisis they warned and voted against dumped on them. They must cope with EU employees unnerved by an uncertain future, with a regulatory nightmare as we crash out of European arbitration procedures, with the threat of trade barriers from Europe and debilitating battles in the World Trade Organisation and with gaps in the workforce as European workers refuse to move to a country where they aren’t welcome.

The Tories used to hail them as “the backbone of Britain”. Now it does not speak for them, only at them as it orders them to shut up. I wonder how long it will be before they speak their minds.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:16 PM

The Shortest History of Germany review – probing an enigma at the heart of Europe

A map of Prussia, circa 1870.

Observer April 2017

In AD843, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire like mafia bosses parcelling out territory. Louis received the land we were to later call Germany. A large part of it had been in the Roman empire, lying behind the Limes Germanicus, the great wall the Romans built to keep out the barbarians to the east. Cologne, Stuttgart, Vienna, Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt, all the greatest cities of the future West Germany and Austria, with the exception of Hamburg, grew up within or in the immediate shadow of Rome’s western empire.

Louis knew where his kingdom began – Germany began at the Rhine, of course. He knew, too, that at its heart were territories that were now Catholic lands and had once been part of the Roman empire. But where did Germany end? He wasn’t sure, nor was anyone else. The Treaty of Verdun, which managed the partition, simply assigned Louis “everything beyond the Rhine”. It left open the question of where “everything” stopped. Did Germany end at the Elbe, where Charlemagne’s rule had stopped, or could it go on into the Slav lands to the east, whose rulers had paid tribute to Charlemagne?

James Hawes’s sweeping and confident history shows how deep the division of Germany between west and east became as Teutonic knights, Junkers, Prussian militarists and Nazi imperialists all determined to establish an empire over the Slavs in the lands beyond the Elbe.

The Limes Germanicus never faded away. In the Reformation, all of the Germany that remained Catholic lay within Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom. The revolt against Rome came from the north and east. The tragedy of German unification is that it did not produce a united Germany but a Prussian empire, which extended the rule of the Hohenzollern court. The industrious provinces of western and southern Germany provided the funds for the Prussian state and military and tax breaks for Junker aristocrats.

The first recognisable forerunners of the Nazis stood as explicitly antisemitic candidates in 1893 elections and won 16 Reichstag seats. Every last one of their victories was in Lutheran Prussia, Saxony and Hesse. Germany might have won the first world war, but it was not enough for Ludendorff and the Prussian generals to beat Russia and see the Bolsheviks installed. They pursued a millennial fantasy of an empire over the Slavs and remained determined to waste troops in the east, who might have resisted the victorious allied advance from the west in 1918.

The Nazis’ strongholds were, once again, in the Lutheran east rather than the Roman west. In July 1932 only 17% of Nazi votes came from Charlemagne’s old kingdom in the Catholic south and west. If you were trying to determine whether a random German voter from 1928 would back Hitler by 1933, asking whether they were rich or poor, proletarian or bourgeois, urban or rural, man or woman would scarcely help you. The only question with any predictive value worth asking would have been whether they were Catholic or Lutheran.

No one can deny that Germany is a part of the west today. The trouble is that no one today can say what ‘the west’ is

Now Germany is reunited and its new capital is the old Prussian capital of Berlin, far beyond the Elbe, rather than Bonn in the west. Once again, west Germans are pumping colossal sums of money to the east, not to fund Prussian militarism and agricultural subsidies for Junkers this time, but to pay for remarkably ineffective welfare programmes. Once again, the east is where extremism flourishes, whether in the shape of the far right Allianz für Deutschland or the heirs of the communists in Die Linke.

I admire Hawes immensely, not least because he is such a versatile writer. He has produced a string of satires of modern Britain. The best, Speak for England, foreshadowed Farage, May and Brexit with such unnerving accuracy it deserves some kind of prescience prize. Yet at the same time as writing comic novels, he has produced a learned study of Kafka and now this bracingly provocative history of Germany.

Even in normal times, he would have given us much to talk about. As Hawes says, history gives us no right to throw the Prussian/Nazi past at all Germans. We should worry that reunification has re-established a truncated version of the Prussian empire and that Christian Democrats will one day ally with the eastern far right or social democrats with the eastern far left.

But these are not normal times. With Brexit and the Trump victory, Germany is now the world’s pre-eminent liberal democracy, a role it never sought and appears ill-equipped to manage. No one can deny that it is a part of the west today. The trouble is that no one today can say what “the west” is.

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s first Green party foreign minister, reacted to Trump’s election by wondering if there was a west left. “Europe is far too weak and divided to stand in for the US strategically,” he said. “Without US leadership the west cannot survive. The western world as virtually everyone alive has known it will certainly perish before our eyes.”

As America and Britain chase impossible dreams, as populists across Europe exhume chauvinist nationalism from its shallow grave, as Vladimir Putin licks his lips and pats the heads of allies on the far right and left queuing up to offer him their allegiance, Hawes’s question – what is Germany and what does it want to become? – has a frightening urgency.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes is published by Old Street Publishing (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.04 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

As 2019 begins…

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At the Guardian, we believe that access to trusted information is a right that should be available to all, without restriction – independent reporting, distributed fairly, accessible to everyone. Readers’ support powers our work, giving our reporting impact and safeguarding our essential editorial independence. This means the responsibility of protecting independent journalism is shared, enabling us all to feel empowered to bring about real change in the world. Your support gives Guardian journalists the time, space and freedom to report with tenacity and rigor, to shed light where others won’t. It emboldens us to challenge authority and question the status quo. And by keeping all of our journalism free and open to all, we can foster inclusivity, diversity, make space for debate, inspire conversation – so more people, across the world, have access to accurate information with integrity at its heart. Every contribution we receive from readers like you, big or small, enables us to keep working as we do.

The Guardian is editorially independent, meaning we set our own agenda. Our journalism is free from commercial bias and not influenced by billionaire owners, politicians or shareholders. No one edits our editor. No one steers our opinion. This is important as it enables us to give a voice to those less heard, challenge the powerful and hold them to account. It’s what makes us different to so many others in the media, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.

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by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:09 PM

Trump’s lies don’t matter. It’s the millions who believe them who should scare you

Believers: Donald Trump supporters attend the inauguration ‘freedom ball’ in Washington last month.

The Observer, 5 February, 2017

Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.

How you see the believers determines how you fight them and seek to protect liberal society from its enemies. And I don’t just mean how you fight that object of liberal despair and conservative fantasies, the alternately despised and patronised white working class. Compulsive believers are not just rednecks. They include figures as elevated as the British prime minister and her cabinet. Before the EU referendum, a May administration would have responded to the hitherto unthinkable arrival of a US president who threatened Nato and indulged Putin by hugging Britain’s European allies close. But Brexit has thrown Britain’s European alliance into crisis. So English Conservative politicians must crush their doubts and believe with a desperate compulsion that the alleged “pragmatism” of Donald Trump will triumph over his undoubted extremism, a belief that to date has as much basis in fact as creationism.

Mainstream journalists are almost as credulous. After decades of imitating Jeremy Paxman and seizing on the trivial gaffes and small lies of largely harmless politicians, they are unable to cope with the fantastic lies of the new authoritarian movements. When confronted with men who lie so instinctively they believe their lies as they tell them, they can only insist on a fair hearing for the sake of “balance”. Their acceptance signals to the audience the unbelievable is worthy of belief.

Hope against hypocrisy as Trump joins the swamp

“Rednecks” are also embarrassingly evident among Britain’s expensively educated conservative commentators, who cannot see how the world has changed. They say that of course they don’t support everything Trump does. Their throats cleared and backs covered, they insist that the real enemy is his “foaming” and “hysterical” critics whose opposition to the alt-right is not a legitimate protest by democratic citizens but an “elitist” denial of democracy itself.

Brecht wrote against the dangers of inertia in 1935 as Hitler was changing Germany beyond recognition :

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it, The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

As their old world is engulfed now, the sluggish reflexes and limited minds of too many conservatives compel them to cry out against liberal hypocrisy, as if it were all that mattered. There is more than enough hypocrisy to go round. I must confess to wondering about the sincerity of those who protest against the collective punishment of Trump’s ban on visitors from Muslim countries but remain silent when Arab countries deny all Israeli Jews admission. I too would like to know why there was so little protest when Obama gave Iran funds to spend on the devastation of Syria. But the greatest hypocrisy is always to divert attention from what is staring you in the face today and may be kicking you in the teeth tomorrow.

Today’s strongman is a leader who makes opposition as hard as possible but does not actually declare a dictatorship

The temptation to think it a new totalitarianism is too strong for many to resist. Despite readers reaching for Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, strictly speaking, the comparison with fascism and communism isn’t true. When I floated it with the great historian of Nazism, Sir Richard Evans, he almost sighed. It’s not just that there aren’t the death camps and torture chambers, he said. The street violence that brought fascists to power in Italy and Germany and the communists to power in Russia is absent today.

The 21st-century’s model for a strongman is a leader who makes opposition as hard as possible, as Orbán is trying to do in Hungary, but does not actually declare a dictatorship, for not even Putin has done that.

To my mind, that does not make comparisons with the past fruitless, particularly in the case of the nihilistic and voraciously aggressive Trump. There are very few new ideas in politics. Parallels always illuminate. Aristotle warned of the “intemperance of demagogues”. Thucydides had the strutting Athenians sneer at the vanquished Melians that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Both the warning and the threat from classical Greece are as contemporary as ever. Hannah Arendt described leaders who knew their followers would “believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism”. She was describing Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. But her words apply as well to today’s Trump supporters, who gulp down incredible falsehoods and then dismiss the “crooked media” when the stories collapse.

We are not reliving the 20th century, for how could we? Rather, ideas from the past have melted and reformed into a postmodern fascistic style; a fascism with a wink in its eye and a bad-boy smirk on its face.

Conventional politicians and commentators are stranded because they were wholly unprepared for the new breed of leader who lies as a matter of policy as well as a matter of course. They are flailing around, and inventing phrases like “fake news” and “post-truth politics” to capture a state of affairs they think is entirely novel. Instead of saying that we are seeing something new, it is better to accept that something old and malignant has returned like foul water bubbling up from a drain.

You’re fired! Tyrants are often found in the office.


Comparisons with 20th-century totalitarianism are not wholly exaggerated. With Trump, the lies are a dictatorial assertion of his will to power. “I am in control,” he says, in effect, as he conjures imaginary crowds at his inauguration or invents millions of illegal voters so he can pretend he won the popular vote. “You may know I am lying. But if you contradict me, I will make you pay.”

No one in the west has seen Trump’s kind of triumph in politics since the age of the dictators. But look around your workplace and perhaps you won’t be so surprised by their victories. If you are unlucky, you will see an authoritarian standing over you. The radical economist Chris Dillow once wrote that, while the fall of communism discredited the centrally planned economy, the centrally planned corporation, with the autocratic leader who tolerated no dissent, not only survived 1989, but blossomed.

Dillow is not alone in worrying about the harm the little Hitlers of the corporation might bring. Since the crash, economists have looked as a matter of urgency at how hierarchies encourage petty tyrants to brag their way to the top. They exhibit all the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder: a desire to dominate, overconfidence, a sense of entitlement, an inability to listen to others or allow others to speak and a passion for glory. If you want to know how they can win the votes of those around them, remember Fred Goodwin’s vainglorious decision to takeover ABN Amro. Perhaps the single worst decision in UK business history, whose consequences we are still paying for, was not opposed by a single member of the RBS board.

In the right circumstances, compulsive liars can create compulsive believers, as Trump has done

Narcissists in business are more likely to seek macho takeovers and less likely to engage in the hard work of innovating and creating profitable firms, the researchers found. They are more likely to cook the books to feed their cults of the personality and make, if not America, then themselves look great again. Academics from the University of California have asked the obvious question: why would rational companies let the fascism of the firm survive? Surely they ought to be protecting their businesses, as free market theory dictates, rather than allow dangerous and grasping men and women to risk their destruction.

They found what most of us instinctively know to be true: in the right circumstances, compulsive liars can create compulsive believers, as Trump has done. “Overconfident individuals attained status” because their peers believed the stories they told about themselves. It should not be a surprise that Donald Trump, Arron Banks and oligarchs backing the Russian and east European strongmen come from business. The age of the dictators never came to an end in the workplace.

The unrepentant liar: Donald Trump and the Central Park Five

Long before anyone worried about the death of truth, Trump was showing that he might have based his career on the Don DeLillo character in Underworld, who says: “Some people fake their death, I’m faking my life.” (A motto that applies as well to Boris Johnson.) Of all his lies, none to my mind is more revelatory or more ominous for the future than the lies he told when people assumed he was just another loudmouthed tycoon.

In 1989, a white investment banker called Trisha Meili was horribly beaten and raped in New York’s Central Park. She had lost three-quarters of her blood and gone into a coma by the time the police found her. The authorities arrested five juveniles, four black and one Hispanic. In one of his first moves from business into politics, Trump said death was the only punishment they deserved. He took out adverts in the New York press declaring: “Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancour should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

Trump dealt with the accusations of racist scaremongering by rehearsing a self-pitying line that would serve him well in the future. Whites were the true underprivileged in American society, he told NBC television. “A well-educated black enjoys tremendous advantages over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. If I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black.”

You may oppose the death penalty. You may find Trump’s language reeked of the Munich beer hall. Cynical New Yorkers noted at the time that Trump was feuding with city bosses over tax abatements for his developments and was using the rape to attack a mayor who had damned him as “greedy”. For all that, you could think that this was still a legitimate response to a foul crime.

But mark the sequel. In 2002, a career criminal admitted to the rape and DNA evidence proved he was telling the truth. The police, it turned out, had forced confessions from their teenage suspects. The boys, now men, were released. But Trump refused to concede an inch of ground. He would not accept new evidence had put him in the wrong and the five were innocent. Even in 2014, when New York finally reached a compensation settlement with the victims of police abuse, Trump was still insisting that “settling doesn’t mean innocence” and the taxpayers of New York had been fleeced.

“It shows his character,” said Raymond Santana, one of the five Trump had smeared. So it does and, after that, nothing should surprise you. Connoisseurs of Don DeLillo’s American underworld will learn all they need to know about his character when they hear that Trump’s first lawyer was Roy Cohn, a grotesque figure from the McCarthy era of the 1950s. He persecuted real and imagined gays in public life who he claimed could be blackmailed. As so often with obsessive homophobes, Cohn gave every appearance of being a closet case and died of Aids in 1986. Before denying the human race the pleasure of his company, however, Cohn taught the young Trump to always attack and never conciliate. Whether Trump needed teaching is open to doubt.

This vision of life as a perpetual war you see so clearly in the Trisha Meili case is authentically totalitarian. Truth, reason, evidence, decency must all be sacrificed to the greater good of keeping the strongman looking strong. The weapons 21st-century technology provide for political warfare make me doubt that stopping Trump and his imitators will be easy. Just as Britain’s isolated Brexit government has no choice but to compulsively believe that Trump’s pragmatism will overwhelm his extremism, so Americans must hope that the checks and balances of the constitution will cage him. No one can see the future and both may be right. But, as I said, there is no evidence that they are. One reason for pessimism is that Trump’s character may make him worthless as a man but a success as a politician in our time of cyber-charlatanism.

After Trump’s victory, Hillary Clinton’s aide Ronald A Klain reflected with understandable shock on an election his candidate should never have lost. Trump tore up the rules of politics, Klain said, but still finished in the White House. The old wisdom was to apologise if you were in the wrong and move the conversation on with as much speed as you could manage. “If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” Ronald Reagan said, as he stated the commonsensical proposition that politicians should not dwell on their embarrassments.

Public relations in the Trump era:
brand all media outlets as ‘fake’

But Trump understood that Twitter, Facebook and 24/7 news had changed the world. The modern chancer needed to stay with the scandal and arm his supporters with instant explanations. The Trump campaign would not apologise. When caught in a scandal, it doubled down within minutes. It knew its supporters wouldn’t care if the experts they despised as thoroughly as Michael Gove dismissed Trump’s explanations for refusing to release his tax returns or feminists said his advocacy of sexual assaults was something more than “locker-room talk”. “The point is,” Klain said, “Trump supporters were armed with an explanation that they accepted and could use to defend their candidate” on social media.

The same need to instil a party line and protect his supporters from reasonable doubt leads Trump and his sidekicks once again to imitate dictators and attack the whole of the free press. Not just opposition journalists, mark you, but the entire media. The reasoning is obvious. Every one of the many financial and political scandals Trump will surely generate will emerge in the media. Every media organisation must therefore be branded as lying and fake before they publish. Journalists need to learn, if they have not learned already, that no accommodation is possible with the alt-right because its ideology and tactics preclude it from wanting an accommodation. You cannot “balance” or appease such people – you can only expose them.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer… and a media cohort that is at a loss on how to deal with the new administration.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer… and a media cohort that is at a loss on how to deal with the new administration. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Unless Twitter bans him, which it should if Trump incites violence, the same tactics can be used against politicians. Republican legislators will think hard about exercising their constitutional right to check a president if they know that Trump can use social media to provoke their supporters back home to denounce and harry them.

I am sorry if I am being “hysterical”, but I cannot see how conservatives can argue in conscience that there is nothing monstrous about the 45th President of the United States. The Ku Klux Klan has endorsed him. He has brought Steve Bannon, a true postmodern fascist, to the centre of power. Bannon exemplifies the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s sinister ideal of a political leader who unites his supporters by creating enemies for them to hate. Bannon and the alt-right have made Islam – not al-Qaeda, Islamic State, or the Shia theocrats in Tehran but all Muslims – their enemy of choice. They unite their supporters on racial lines against blacks, Jews and Latinos too. As a former journalist on his Breitbart site explained, Bannon believes “in a nutshell that western culture is inseparable from European ethnicity”.

Nor, and even when all due deference has been paid to the learned objections of Richard Evans and other historians, is it a sign of hysteria to say that western democracies are seeing an increase in the indulgence of political violence that echoes the 1930s. Once, the apologetics were confined to the worst elements in the liberal-left. In the last decade, I could feel the thrill of satisfaction as they decided that the latest terrorist massacre was a just and righteous punishment for the wars of Tony Blair and George W Bush.

As late as 2015, an article for Jeremy Corbyn’s Stop the War was saying that the slaughter of civilians in Paris was “the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies”, while the National Union of Students was deciding that it would be “Islamophobic” to criticise Islamic State. (A genuinely racist notion, incidentally, that implies, Bannon-style, that all followers of Islam welcome the mass murder of unbelievers and the sexual enslavement of captured women.)

Reacting with violence against Trump? That’s exactly what he wants…

Just as the far-left has moved from the fringe to take over the once mainstream British Labour party, so the far-right has moved in to take over America’s Republicans. Violence and fear are its fellow travellers. Look at Trump telling his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters at his rallies, or at the contempt with which the Daily Mail greeted the verdict and sentencing handed to the murderer of Jo Cox, or the loathing with which Nigel Farage treated her widower. Try, then, to put yourself in the place of a black or Muslim American and imagine how they feel about what is to come.

There are few reasons to be cheerful. But amid the despair, I hope I am not being naive in sensing new forces stirring and the will to fight back hardening. We are now at the beginnings of a new opposition movement, a liberal version of backlash politics, which feels the urgent need to drive the right from power.

Trump wants a violent reaction. He wants to be able to tell white Americans his opponents are ‘professional anarchists’

It could all go wrong. Trump, Bannon, Farage and the Tory right want to polarise societies. They can look to the example of Bashar al-Assad and see a path to victory. The dictator won by shooting down the peaceful demonstrators of the Arab Spring and targeting moderate forces in the civil war that followed. By the time he was finished, there was no middle ground left. Assad could turn to the brutalised survivors and say: “See, it’s either me or Islamic State now. That’s your only choice. What’s it going to be?”

Understand the logic of polarisation and you will understand that Trump wants a violent reaction. He wants to be able to tell white Americans that his opponents are “professional anarchists”, as he said last week. He wants liberals to treat all his supporters as if they are as debased as he is. He can then turn to his base and say liberals hate them because they are white; that they see them as nothing more than stupid, deplorable bigots. Force me from power, he will conclude, and these hate-filled enemies will come for you and give the “tremendous advantages” he was pretending blacks enjoyed in the 1980s to their favoured minorities.

The alternative, and not only in America, is to go back to the despised and patronised working-class followers of the right. You should try to win them over in elections rather than march with the already converted at rallies. You should cordon off the true racists and fascists and listen to and argue with the rest with a modicum of respect. If that can happen, then perhaps the world will learn that the best way to end the power of compulsive liars is to break the compulsion of their followers to believe.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 12:03 PM

The return of the MMR charlatan fits with our times

Observer 18 February, 2017

Andrew Wakefield, a fraud beyond reasonable doubt.

If you are unlucky, and all of us are unlucky in the end, you will visit a doctor in the confident expectation that they can fix any illness as a mechanic fixes a car and learn of the vast areas of ignorance on the map of medical science. If you are very unlucky, you will take an autistic child to a doctor and learn that “autism” is a vague and flabby label. There isn’t even agreement on what causes it, let alone on what, if anything, might alleviate or cure it.

Into the gap, between inexplicable suffering and the inability to relieve it, pour the conmen. Last week, Andrew Wakefield, the most contemptible of the charlatans, arrived in Britain to exploit the false hopes and fill the nightmares of his native land.

That he is a fraud has been established beyond reasonable doubt. The General Medical Council struck him off in 2010 after, in a superb example of journalism at its best, Brian Deer showed how Wakefield had manipulated research to make a non-existent link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

Not content with lying, Wakefield exploited his voodoo science for financial gain. The money was not the worst of it. The MMR conspiracy theory sent vaccination rates below the level of herd immunity. As unvaccinated children become teenagers, we are yet to see whether they will pay a price in blood for Wakefield’s fraudulence. Given the threat to public health, the personal enrichment and the neglected fact that Wakefield’s malign fantasy has led parents who vaccinated autistic children needlessly blaming themselves, in my eyes he appears to be a criminal.

If you want to know what is wrong with a country, look at the criminals its courts cannot punish. Just as it was impossible to prosecute bankers after the crash of 2008, so it is impossible now to arrest Wakefield. Rob an old lady of her savings and you go to prison. Rob millions of children of protection against preventable illness and you are endorsed by the Trump administration, which has, inevitably, made its support for the MMR con explicit.

The one good thing Andrew Wakefield has done in his worthless life is show that sick societies are like sick people. They, too, face suffering without relief or prospect of a cure. They, too, are open to exploitation by every variety of crank and fanatic. Nowhere more so than in Trump’s America. At a personal level, Trump’s wife, Melania, promises to sue anyone who says their son, Barron, may be autistic. Her threat suggests the couple have feared, however fleetingly, that they might learn of the pain of the parents of autistic children and of autistic people themselves.

Whatever twinge of sympathy I felt, vanished, however, when I saw that at the political level Trump had said that “doctors lied” about vaccination and has given every indication of pursuing the Wakefield conspiracy theory in office. If he does, it will be a disaster for autistic people. In America, as in the UK, they fall over a cliff edge when they move from child to adulthood. So bad are the services, the US does not know how many autistic adults live in its borders.

Hillary Clinton, who actually talked to autistic people, something vaccination conspirators neglect to do, promised a census. She lost. And now, as Steve Silberman, the author of the magnificent Neurotribes tells me, the Trump administration can indulge in junk science, safe in the knowledge that its billionaire friends will never need public assistance to provide for their autistic children.

The “doctors lied” is the first link between MMR and so many other modern manias. Climate change deniers have to maintain that 97% or more of the world’s scientists are lying. It is easier to believe an unbelievable fiction than contemplate the vast and wrenching changes manmade climate change must bring to our lives. Rather than face them, say Trump and the Anglo-Saxon right, we can retreat into a surprisingly comfortable state of paranoid delusion.

Second, and this point needs emphasising when elements on the right claims to be the champions of the working class (and let us see how long that lasts) and elements on the left blame it for Trump’s victory: conspiracy theories always begin with pseudo-intellectuals.

Anyone who has looked at the work of Holocaust, 9/11 or climate change deniers, will see that it is stuffed with footnotes. It was not a tabloid catering for the “left behind” that began the MMR lie, but the learned medical journal, the Lancet. Its editors did not know they were victims of a fraud. But they ought to have seen that Wakefield’s original 1998 paper was “badly written and had no clear statement of its hypothesis or indeed of its conclusions”, as Ben Goldacre, the debunker of scientific fraud, put it.

Last week, Wakefield did not speak at a working men’s club, but at the supposedly reputable Regent’s University in London. To top that, he was invited to the European parliament, not by a neofascist know-nothing, but by an MEP from a Green party, which readers who have not been paying attention may think is filled with decent people.

Third, the MMR scandal rebuts the myth that we are living in a uniquely mendacious era of web-driven “fake news”. Mainstream national newspaper journalists, including here at the Observer, I am afraid and at the BBC, amplified Wakefield’s message in the last decade without making the most basic checks. There can be no “post-truth age” for the autistic, for they never had an age of truth to begin with. To put the disgrace of my trade as mildly as I can, if Wakefield were put on trial, there would be hundreds of journalists alongside him in the dock.

Finally, ask yourself why Andrew Wakefield does not recant, when every study of autism and vaccination has shown his original claim to be false. Asking that is like asking why Donald Trump does not cut his links with climate change deniers or Jeremy Corbyn cut his links with the Socialist Workers party. Wakefield would lose his support base. More to the point, as I suspect he, Trump and Corbyn know, the very fools he has encouraged would throw the accusations of corruption he has thrown at others back at him.

Whether you are dealing with climate change or MMR, the final lesson is this: you cannot rely on charlatans to expose themselves. You have tune up your bullshit detector and do the exposing yourself.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 11:55 AM

Revolting! by Mick Hume review – defence of a far-right democracy

Observer, 27 February, 2017

Donald Trump and ‘the power of the monied elite’ is ignored by Hume.


If you want to understand the opportunism and shallowness of so much English commentary, look at how former Marxist-Leninists have prospered. On Radio 4’s Moral Maze or in the rightwing press the same names reappear: Claire Fox, Frank Furedi, Brendan O’Neill and Mick Hume. Their audience is not told they were members of the Revolutionary Communist party, which reconstituted itself as Spiked magazine, or that their careers provide a parable of modern media cynicism.

As Leninists they were the most ultra of the ultra-left, the type who would argue that sanctions against apartheid were a bourgeois compromise, or more funds for the NHS were palliatives that postponed the day of revolution. By the 1990s, they realised that socialism was a dead end. They grasped something else: if they abandoned their calls for revolution, but kept their denunciations of environmentalism, liberal elitism and help for the victims of genocide, they would never want for media work.

Mick Hume has now produced a defence of “democracy” against the attacks of “the establishment”. As the unwitting reader may buy it by mistake, I will explain what Hume does not cover. Democracy is indeed beleaguered. Fifty three per cent of the planet’s population – some 3.97 billion people – are controlled by tyrants, absolute monarchs, military juntas and theocrats. Hume has so little interest in the corruption and injustice they must endure, he fails to acknowledge their existence.

In Russia, the Middle East and the west, meanwhile, the global elite of wealth is producing a global argument against equality, including political equality. Look to the American and European right and you see Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Nigel Farage lining up with the Corbynista far left to applaud Vladimir Putin. The Christian equivalents of Muslim Brotherhood preachers among their ranks admire Putin for stamping down on women’s and gay rights. Agnostic members of the super-rich, by contrast, have turned on democracy because it gives the poor and the female the power to limit the wealthy. “The vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians –have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel explained a few years ago.

Any writer on the threats to democracy should wonder how extravagantly unequal societies can sustain an egalitarian political system. Any writer with a knowledge of history should know that anti-democratic theories can turn into anti-democratic practice. In North Carolina, for example, Republicans engaged in what Americans euphemistically call “voter suppression” to stop poor blacks reaching the polls. When these failed, they attempted to strip the newly elected Democrat governor of his powers.

Hume has not the sense of duty to his readers or what passes for his intellect to deal with the power of the moneyed elite Donald Trump so conspicuously represents. Instead he flags himself as open to offers from the BBC and rightwing press by telling us that it is the beaten opponents of Trump and of Brexit who are the real elite, whose anti-democratic illegitimacy must be exposed and denounced. He has produced a Daily Mail-style “liberals are the enemies of the people” op-ed, and extended it to book length.

I should, I suppose, give him a lesson on basic political philosophy. I doubt he will understand it, but let me try. Democracies consist of competing elites. But the elite that always matters is always the elite in power. In Britain’s case it is the pro-Brexit elite. In the case of the United States it is the Trump presidency and the Republican Congress. Trying to write an anti-elitist defence of the elite in power is to borrow Peter Thiel’s word “oxymoronic”. Moronically oxymoronic, in fact.

Democracy comes in many forms. By one reading the pre-civil war United States was democratic when the white majority enslaved the black minority in North Carolina and across the south. Modern democracies, in their elitist decadence, include protections against the tyranny of the majority, the most essential of which is the right to argue against the rulers of the day without becoming an “enemy of the people”.

That Hume knows nothing of this and continues to insist opposition is elitism proves that you can take the boy out of the Marxist-Leninist party but you cannot take the Marxist-Leninist party out of the boy.

by Nick Cohen at February 04, 2019 11:46 AM